Time Travel and the Hardboiled Detective Novel,
by Tony Baer.


   So the question is, why am I so into the hardboiled detective novels of the 20’s-70’s?

   Nobody asked. So I asked myself.

   And what it is kinda first dawned on me on an art exhibit I saw in Montreal about “Streamlining” as American culture.

   Streamlining in American culture, the sleek aerodynamic look of toasters, Airstream campers, vacuum cleaners, radios, cars, planes, became ubiquitous sometime after the end of World War I. The design dominated American design throughout the 30’s and 40’s.

   It dawned on me that at the same time that American design was being streamlined, so was American prose, by such folks as Hemingway, Hammett and Jim Tully. Each of Tully, Hammett and Hemingway got their hardboiled everyman voice honestly. Hemingway as a war correspondent and army medic, Hammett as a soldier and Pinkerton, and Tully as a bindlestiff. Cheap pulp magazines and paperbacks made reading affordable for the masses. And they didn’t want to read the long-winded labyrinthian pages of Henry James. They wanted everyday language, terse and to the point.

   At this zenith of American culture, folks were confident that they knew who they were, knew right and wrong, and knew what they were saying and how to say it. There was very little existential angst. And I have to say, I envy them.


   So, the point?

   I’m not sure. But it may be helpful to illustrate what I’m talking about with some quotes and examples:

1. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner

2. “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Albert Einstein

3. In the 80’s made for TV movie, Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve is staying at a B&B when he falls madly in love with a woman in an old 1800’s photo. He obsessively finds out everything he can about her, and then surrounds himself with period clothes, coins and culture. After passing some threshold of obsession, he is able to traverse the space/time continuum, meet his fair lady and consummate his love.

4. In “Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges, a contemporary man decides he wants to spontaneously write Don Quixote, word for word. So he moves to the same area that Cervantes lived, builds himself a similar hovel, eats the same foods, drinks the same drinks, reads the same medieval chivalric romances, dresses the same, buys an old suit of armor, and, after passing some threshold of obsession, he is able to traverse the space/time continuum and spontaneously write Don Quixote, word for word.

5. “What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.” George Bernard Shaw

6. In “A New Refutation of Time” by Borges, he argues that all that exists are experiences. The experiences exist regardless of ‘time’. You watch a cardinal as it sits on a fence. The experience of seeing the cardinal on the fence is all that there is. There’s no ‘you’. There’s no ‘time’. There’s just the experience of watching a cardinal on a fence. This experience has occurred millions of times, over millions of years. The experience is neither past nor future, neither true nor false. It simply is. All that we hope and all that we fear will never come to pass, because hope and fear always happen in a future that never comes. Rather, we are in an eternal present. An eternal flow of experiences, repeated eternally regardless of whether a single individuals may cease to be.

   So, the idea seems to be that the main thing is ‘time’. The main thing is the experience. What makes us grieve our loss is the unbreachable breach between present and past.

   But is it unbreachable? I beseech you: it is not.

   So how do I time travel? I read the books of the hardboiled era. I read Hammett, Cain and Chandler. I read Hemingway and Tully. I read the Macdonalds, I read the Bart Spicers, the Deweys, the Steinbecks, the Howard Brownes, the Tom Kromers, the Jack Blacks, the Norbert Davises, the Raoul Whitfields, the Harry Whittingtons, the hardboiled peeps. I read them and become an experience. An experience where I know who I am, I know right from wrong, I know what to say and how to say it. All is clear. There is no angst.